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UOW scientist named as one of Australia’s best young researchers

Dr Zenobia Jacobs’ insatiable curiosity of where we came from and what makes us human has earned her a 2013 Scopus Young Researcher Award.

An ARC QEII Research Fellow in UOW’s Centre for Archaeological Science, Dr Jacobs was announced today (Thursday 12 September) as the Scopus Young Researcher of the Year in the Humanities and Social Sciences category.

The Scopus Young Researcher Awards are part of an Elsevier global initiative to support early career researchers. The scheme has been designed to recognise outstanding young researchers and scientists in Australia who have made significant contributions in their areas of research.

During her PhD and since completing it in 2004, the South African-born geochronologist has been pioneering the development of single-grain optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating for use in archaeology. This technique measures how long individual grains of sand have been hidden from sunlight in archaeological deposits, so that the ages of buried artefacts and fossils can be determined.

Her efforts have already made major contributions to what we know about early human evolution. Just last month, she was part of an international team to report the first clear evidence that Neandertals learnt a new technology on their own, which was then later adopted by modern humans.

They found that the 50,000 year-old bone tools called ‘lissoirs’ or ‘smoothers’ (recovered from excavations in southwest France) used by Neandertals to fashion leather were, in fact, quite sophisticated and are still used by luxury leatherworkers today.

“This discovery and the longevity of the technology, possibly the only known Neandertal invention still used today, suggest that our Neandertal cousins might not have been the dull-witted oafs, as they have traditionally been portrayed,” Dr Jacobs said.

Last year, Dr Jacobs was also involved in the discovery of weapons used by early modern humans on the south coast of South Africa, which was published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature.

“This discovery was among a number of discoveries made in South Africa over the last decade or so that caused a paradigm-shift in our thinking about when, where and why modern humans first started to behave the way we do today,” Dr Jacobs said.

“For a long time, people thought our species (Homo sapiens) only became modern in our behaviour once we reached Europe and outcompeted the Neandertals. But many studies, several of which I’ve been involved in, now suggest that our ancestors were powerful hunters, smart and creative for at least 50,000 years before leaving the African continent to populate the rest of the world.”

“My aim has been to try and trace the timing of the important developments and turning-points in our evolutionary trajectory over space and time – but there’s still a long way to go!”

In between mentoring PhD students and running UOW’s OSL dating lab, which the influential publication Science described as “widely acknowledged to be the world’s premier facility”, Dr Jacobs has also been seeking to discover more about the first Australians – when they got here and where they came from – by re-dating the earliest archaeological sites in Australia using her single-grain OSL technique.

Another up-and-coming UOW researcher, nanoengineer Professor Zaiping Guo, has also been announced as a finalist in the Scopus Young Researcher of the Year Awards.

Professor Guo came 2nd Runner Up in the Engineering and Technology category for her significant contributions to the field of materials science and chemical engineering.

Since receiving her PhD in 2003, Professor Guo, also an ARC QEII Fellow, has worked tirelessly to improve lithium-ion batteries for use in electric vehicles, as well as portable devices like mobile phones.

In fact, in April this year, her team at the Institute for Superconducting & Electronic Materials had a breakthrough.

They developed a novel Germanium (Ge)-based material with 5 times more energy storage and the potential to go at least 2 times farther on a charge than current electric vehicles.

The development of this inexpensive manufacturing technique also allows for much faster charging time. To put it into perspective, after 10 hours of charging, the 2013 Holden Volt can only travel 87 km, whereas a Ge-based battery would take just minutes to charge and could travel hundreds of kilometres.

Last reviewed: 12 September, 2013

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